Sinking the Texas Clipper

It’s taken more than a year of work, but the old U.S. Training Ship Texas Clipper is finally ready to be sunk in the Gulf of Mexico. After three lives covering more than sixty years in war and peace, the Clipper will become an artificial reef and a diving site for amateur divers. Houston Public […]

It’s taken more than a year of work, but the old U.S. Training Ship Texas Clipper is finally ready to be sunk in the Gulf of Mexico. After three lives covering more than sixty years in war and peace, the Clipper will become an artificial reef and a diving site for amateur divers. Houston Public Radio’s Jim Bell reports.

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For 30 years the Texas Clipper was a floating classroom for the Texas A&M Maritime Academy in Galveston, and that was just one of her careers. She was built in 1944 and used as a troop transport in the last year of World War II, under the name USS Queens. After the war she was the passenger and cargo ship SS Excambion, until Texas A&M bought her for the Maritime Academy in 1965 and renamed her the Texas Clipper.

The Clipper trained thousands of young people for careers at sea until she was retired in 1996. After mouldering away for ten years in the Navy’s mothball fleet in Beaumont, the government donated her last year to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for the Ships to Reefs program. That was the easy part. Cleaning her up and getting her ready for that new job was a lot harder.

First they had to patch up a lot of leaks to make her just seaworthy enough to be towed to Brownsville to be stripped down and cleaned up. That was expected to take six months, but it ended up taking a lot longer. Dale Shively of the Parks Department explains why.

“When they got the ship to Brownsville, we started the remediation process, and we were removing asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls called PCBs, and hydrocarbons, and a number of items that had to come off the ship to make it safe for reefing in the Gulf of Mexico.” 

Shively says things were going as expected and on schedule until…

“We noticed a black tar-like substance that was on the bulkheads and the ceilings. This had been on there, we think, since the early days in the 1940s when they built the ship, and no one seemed to know what that substance was. We had it tested, and it showed that it was high in PCBs, and then we were stuck with having to remove it.”

Shively says they tried several methods of removing the tar,  none of which worked.

“We looked at hydro-blasting, different chemicals, degreasers, and finally went with sand-blasting, which was probably the most costly, but at the same time it was the cleanest and easiest to clean up.”

Shively says sand-blasting the tar and cleaning out the polluted sand cost about $600 thousand dollars more, and added nearly six months to the work of getting the Texas Clipper ready to be scuttled. He says they also had to do a lot of structural work.

“We’ve designed the ship to maintain as much of the structure as possible. We’ve left winches in place, the anchor systems, and the masts were cut off so that we have at least 50 feet of clear water above the ship to the surface.” 

They’ve also cut out a lot of external and internal bulkheads to make it safe for divers.

“We’ve opened up rooms that a diver can go from one side of the ship through the room and come out on the other side. All the hatches have been opened, there were three large cargo holds that divers can go inside of all the way down to the bottom of the ship. We’ve tried to make it as safe as possible and actually cut holes throughout the ship, not only for water circulation, but so divers can go in and out safely.” 

So now it’s time to send the Texas Clipper to the bottom. She’s been towed to a site about 17 miles east of Port Isabel, and the scuttling contractor is getting her ready. Texas Maritime Academy Superintendent Rear Admiral Allen Worley says a large contingent of Texas Clipper alumni, academy administrators and others will be on hand.

“I’ve funded four cadets to go down and participate in the reefing ceremony, so we will have a number of folks down there, and there’s a couple of vessels that I understand that have been either sailed down, or chartered to be down there that will carry out alumni and others to actually observe the sinking.”

Admiral Worley says they all want to be there because they all feel a powerful sense of spiritual ownership of the old boat.

“It supported them and taught them a lot of things, and there’s sort of a spiritual connection. To actually see the ship not wasting away in a mothball fleet, or thinking about it, to know it’s actually going to do something positive for the rest of her life.”

Maritime Academy faculty member and former merchant seaman Carl Haupt got his seamanship training on the Texas Clipper in the late 70s and early 80s. Haupt says in a way he’s glad he can’t get away to watch the sinking, because it would be too emotional for him. He says it’s easy to develop a spiritual feeling about a ship.

“Oh it really is, it’s almost spiritual, in my opinion it is, to some people it’s just a hunk of steel but in rough weather you have a tendency to, when the ship is working hard and you see how it’s pitching and rolling and proceeding through the seas, it is truly your ‘saviour’ for lack of a better word, and you feel it’s a part of you.”

Haupt says there’s a special relationship between a seaman and his or her first ship. 

“You take care of the vessel because it is your vessel. There’s a special bond because this ship not only is your livelihood, but it’s getting you safely from point A to point B, and you can physically see how it’s taking care of you, plus it’s providing for you if you do the same to it.”

Haupt says he agrees that it’s somehow fitting that in the most ancient of all seafaring traditions, the Clipper will be buried at sea, but she won’t be forgotten. Dale Shively at the State Parks Department said it best, when he said this is not the end of the Clipper’s life. Shively refuses to talk about her in past tense. This vessel has been a troop carrier in wartime, a passenger and cargo ship and a training ship in peacetime, and Shively says she’s now starting one final career. 

“So those were three different lives and we like to think of this, the reefing component, as the fourth life. Like the ship lives on in this different form, it’s still giving back to the state of Texas. We like to think that the ship is not dead. It lives on.”

There’s more information about the Texas Clipper, her history, and all the work that’s been done to get her ready for her last mission, on our website  Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.